Counting the Cost

  • Linda Svendsen
    Sussex Drive: Inside the Backrooms and the Bedrooms of the Nation. Random House (purchase at
  • Kathryn Para
    Lucky. Mother Tongue (purchase at
Reviewed by Jodi Lundgren

Literature and politics have long had an ambivalent relationship, sometimes mutually repellent (as in “art for art’s sake”), sometimes unilaterally exploitative (as in propaganda). Falling between these two extremes are engaged novels such as Linda Svendsen’s satirical Sussex Drive, which exposes the repressive bonds among the Canadian Prime Minister’s Office, the military, and the media and Kathryn Para’s Lucky, which laments the human cost of the Iraq War.

Set in 2008-09, Sussex Drive is told through two alternating point-of-view characters: Becky Leggatt, the Whitehorse-raised, twice-married wife of Prime Minister Greg Leggatt, and Governor General Lise Lavoie, a francophone native of a small African country named St. Bertrand. Spending half the book immersed in the consciousness of the hypocritical, manipulative, anti-feminist Becky will tax the average reader (no pun intended). Although it is a relief to shift into the more cosmopolitan and arts-friendly perspective of Lise, she is hidebound by diplomacy and can rarely speak her mind. Both women interact with a key secondary character, RCMP Corporal Taylor Shymanski, an amputee who has survived an undercover operation in Afghanistan and who develops a relationship with the Leggatts’ devoutly Christian, eighteen-year-old daughter, Martha.

Sussex Drive follows recent political history closely: from the hasty election that gave Stephen Harper’s Conservative party a second minority government in October 2008; to the short-lived coalition among Opposition leaders six weeks later; to the prorogation of Parliament that forestalled a confidence vote. While the main characters and events are easily recognizable, some of the allusions are considerably less evident, making the book’s ideal reader a news junkie with a steel-trap memory. On occasion, Svendsen plants a playful surprise, such as the Queen of England’s having abdicated, leaving the throne to King Charles (the “Green King”), who tells Lise that “in the instance of your own prime minister, Vampire Leggatt, I’d like to stab a silver crucifix into his anti-environmental heart.”

PM Leggatt himself has a physically violent streak: not only does he throw a heavy pewter picture frame directly at his wife from close range, but he also kicks a cage containing his sons’ pet gerbils, killing one of them and alienating his children. The PM’s distance from his family steadily increases until Becky attends a “First Lady event” in Britain, at which she meets a “Children’s Book Author.” The “CBA” (resembling J.K. Rowling) proceeds to lambast Canada’s PM:

I’ve been watching Canada very closely since he came to power, and the country’s gone totally wacko. You’ve abandoned AIDS initiatives in sub-Saharan Africa, slashed budgets, and told your provincial leaders to privatize medicine, water and education, and you’re inflating your military budget, and your surplus—that amazing buffer built by the previous administration—has been splurged on, quite frankly, cheap vote-bribing wanks.

Although she rebuffs the attack, Becky later admits that “the CBA’s assessment of her husband and his policies rang true-ish to her. For the first time.” Indeed, by novel’s end, Greg Leggatt is revealed as truly villainous—especially through his role in the mysterious subplot involving Shymanski and Afghanistan—and is recognized as such by both his wife and his children, not to mention Lise Lavoie. Although satire generally ridicules a subject in order to deflate it, Svendsen’s narrative contains enough dark (indeed, tragic) elements to leave readers feeling as troubled as they are amused.

Darker still, Lucky is a novel about survivor’s guilt told from the point of view of a thirty-five-year-old Canadian photojournalist named Anika Lund (Ani). Set in the Middle East in 2004 and told in the third person, the main plot concerns Ani’s friendship with Viva, a Syrian woman whose journalist husband has disappeared. When Viva’s search for the man who has abducted (and likely killed) her husband leads her into Iraq, Ani accompanies her, concerned about her friend’s revenge fantasies, but consumed as well with her own quest to take a photograph that will “stop the war.” With the help of a distant cousin of Viva’s husband and of a Danish journalist who is an ex-lover of Ani’s, the women eventually travel to the center of the conflict in Fallujah. Ani, who attempts to sway members of varying factions by saying, “We can get your side of the story out,” captures much of the ensuing horror on film.

Alternating chapters told in the first-person depict Ani at home in Vancouver two years later. The division between third and first-person points of view creates a dissociative effect that highlights Ani’s PTSD, also apparent in her hallucinations, flashbacks, diet of vodka, and trips to the psychiatrist for “Pams” (antipsychotics said to be deadly if mixed with alcohol). What has happened in Fallujah is suspensefully withheld until the book’s closing pages, when the severity of Ani’s PTSD is fully accounted for.

The narrative frequently references truth and representation in contradictory claims that, taken together, are questioning rather than polemical: Ani reflects that “[i]mages are so powerful it would be easy to think they’re truth, but they’re not, only an argument,” while Viva claims that her husband was “a journalist who told the truth” and was “killed” for it. Similarly self-sacrificing, Ani informs her psychiatrist that, “the story’s everything. It can’t ever be about us,” to which the doctor counters that Ani’s personal story also needs to be told.

Lucky does tell that personal story, though, like Svendsen’s novel—and as if to justify its individualistic focus—it is packed with political and historical information. While its own pages might seem to question how any genre can compete in value or significance with documentary realism, the book excels as literary fiction, especially in its trenchant exploration of Ani’s interior landscape. Indeed, the narrative reveals that even with acute senses and a discerning consciousness, a journalist must necessarily filter (rather than directly record) events—and that trauma shatters the ability to filter. While Svendsen delivers a targeted attack on the current federal government, Para remains nonpartisan, drawing attention to the suffering that armed conflict causes on all sides.

This review “Counting the Cost” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 182-84.

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